Review: Headhunters (2011)

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Cast: Aksel Henne, Synnøve Macody Lund, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Director: Morten Tyldum
Country: Norway | Germany
Genre: Action | Crime | Thriller
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Notes: The following review of Headhunters is a part of a collection of reviews by Ronan Doyle during his attendance of the 10th Annual Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

Hitting unexpected levels of success with their 2005 TV series adaptation of the Wallander series of novels, Swedish production company Yellow Bird have since produced a string of crime thriller adaptations for television and film—most notably the Millennium series beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—that have found significant audiences in English-speaking territories, many being remade in the English language. Their latest is a Norwegian adaptation of author Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters, the story of top-level recruitment agent Roger Brown, who uses his interviews with opulent job applicants as opportunities to gauge the worth of their art collections so that he might later steal them to fund his wife’s expensive tastes. When Clas, the former CEO of a leading Swedish firm, arrives in the city to clear out his recently deceased aunt’s apartment, Roger learns of a priceless painting in the family and is determined to secure it.

Headhunters takes surprising turns at startlingly regular intervals, deceiving us with a relatively slow first act before bursting into a gallop as things rapidly escalate for Roger in an extremely negative way.

The major talking point of Headhunters, and its primary attraction, is its impressive ability to transcend genre boundaries and flow freely from comedy to heist to thriller to action to drama and back again. Jealous of Clas’ physical attractiveness and insecure about his own shortness and comparative ugliness, Roger suspects his wife of having an affair with the handsome Swede, making him all the more eager to steal the painting and earn enough cash to keep his woman with him. Little does Roger know that Clas has a military background; when he inevitably discovers the plot to deprive him of his valuable inheritance, he brings his considerable expertise in reconnaissance and warfare to bear. Headhunters takes surprising turns at startlingly regular intervals, deceiving us with a relatively slow first act before bursting into a gallop as things rapidly escalate for Roger in an extremely negative way. It’s a hugely entertaining and madly fun progression of events that keeps the viewer guessing throughout. The overarching scheme of the plot is far from innovative, but the way it manifests itself in a multitude of generic styles keeps it fresh as it ploughs through certain clichés. The ending, in particular, sticks rigidly to expectations for films of this kind, but by the time we get there it’s been such a wild ride that such disappointing unoriginality is easily forgiven.

The same ultra-modern flashiness which attended The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s scenes is on full display here, director Morten Tyldum training his camera on the commercial sleekness of office buildings and designer homes. There’s a sexiness to the imagery that underpins the fundamental conflict between Roger and Clas, giving visual manifestation to the duel of masculinity occurring between them and the concept of self-image in men that, though certainly never explored in significant depth, add a little in the way of thematic meat to the film’s narrative bones. Tyldum has an eye for an exciting set-piece, and each of the major action scenes is handled with an artful deftness that ensures its lasting memorability even as more and more are piled atop it. His handling of the film’s comedy is equally apt, and few scenes pass by without provoking some degree of laughter, deriving primarily from the baffled reactions of Roger, a man more and more out of his depth as the moments go by.

There’s a sexiness to the imagery that underpins the fundamental conflict between Roger and Clas, giving visual manifestation to the duel of masculinity occurring between them and the concept of self-image in men.

This type of pacey thriller typically places more emphasis on action and excitement than on a depth of characterisation, focusing more upon the crazed hijinks of the narrative than in garnering our sympathies for those caught up in them. For a good deal of its running time, this is certainly true of Headhunters, Roger not a terribly involving character, entertaining and amusing though he is. There comes a point, however, where he finds himself—quite literally, in fact—at rock bottom, giving us a lovely moment where he simply breaks down at the thought of how helplessly incapable he is of dealing with his ever-worsening situation. It’s the first time we really consider him as a human being instead of a piece of this puzzle, Aksel Hennie’s performance in the scene imbuing his character with a tragic desperation that makes us feel for him and his plight where previously we just vicariously enjoyed its thrills. There are many points in the film where the plot suddenly shifts gears and jumps genres, but none are as successful as this, giving us—if only for a short while—a touching taste of affecting drama and an appreciation of a little humanity amid the madcap adventure.

Establishing an effective comic foundation in its earliest moments before turning everything on its head and going wild, Headhunters is a terrifically fun thriller that overcomes the banality of its plot courtesy of the fantastic meanders it takes. Hennie bears a striking resemblance to Mads Mikkelsen at times, and the neuroses and witty oddness of his character echo that of many of Mikkelsen’s—think The Green Butchers and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself. Funny, exciting, packed with oddball characters and impressive set-pieces, and even a little emotional to boot, Headhunters makes for a fun-filled romp with unseen turns aplenty.

[notification type=”star”]71/100 ~ GOOD. Establishing an effective comic foundation in its earliest moments before turning everything on its head and going wild, Headhunters is a terrifically fun thriller that overcomes the banality of its plot courtesy of the fantastic meanders it takes.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.